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How to Shoot in Harsh Light by Harnessing the Power of the Sun

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When you’re faced with shooting in harsh sunlight, dynamic shadows, dreamy blur motion effects, and creative depth of field aren’t the first things that usually come to mind. But with the help of a few tips, maybe they should be.

Words by Eleanor Scott

If you’re asking yourself how to make an image look balanced and refined while shooting in harsh sunlight, you are not alone. Whether it’s the client’s needs or your personal schedule, we can’t always wait for golden hour to get the perfect image. Sometimes you have no choice but to do your best in the bright midday sun. Luckily, we have a few tricks up our sleeves to help you achieve the best photos possible on those very occasions.

how to shoot in harsh light
how to shoot in harsh light

GET FAMILIAR WITH FRONT AND BACK LIGHTING

The direction your light is coming from plays a large part in how your images will turn out. Photography in harsh sunlight is something everyone knows to avoid when they can, but what if we told you that you’re missing out on the best key light around? There’s nothing quite as bright as the sun, so use it to generate bold and saturated photographs by placing your subject directly in its rays. This type of front lighting technique is best for candid-style shots where your subject is engaged in an activity rather than looking directly to camera, otherwise you run the risk of squinty eyes and blob-like shadows.

Don’t worry though, if portraits are exactly what you’re shooting, not all is lost. A lot can be done simply by taking the time to get your angles right. Experiment with different perspectives and make minor adjustments by shifting certain parts of your subject’s body to block out the light and, if it’s a close up shot, fill the frame with their features.

But it’s not all about the front light. Putting the sun directly behind or at a slightly off angle to your subject can result in nostalgia-inducingly soft and creamy pictures. Figuring out how to make an image sharper for this kind of shot can be tough. Using a fill flash or a reflector are two great options to bounce the light and keep your exposure even, while a UV filter or a lens hood will also help to prevent flare.

how to shoot in harsh lighthow to shoot in harsh lighthow to shoot in harsh light

“Take advantage of any sharp shadows cast from nearby structures and landmarks.”

EMBRACE SHADOWS WITH DYNAMIC IMAGES

Shooting in harsh sunlight is a great way to achieve vibrant, high contrast images with interesting shadows – you just need to know where to look for them. When putting together the composition of your shot, check to see where the shadows are falling and think about how you can utilise them. Incorporating different patterns and shapes will not only make your shot more dynamic, it can also work as a smart way to lead eyes to the focal point of your image.

Take advantage of any sharp shadows cast from nearby structures and landmarks. If you’re shooting a portrait, place your subject in pockets of light and tilt their face upwards towards the sun to even out the light distribution rather than trying to work against the brightness.

If you can’t find any natural open shade, then create your own. Shadows cast from out of shot umbrellas work just as well as those created by buildings or trees. Most importantly, drop your f-stop down and expose for highlights – it’s always easier to bring up shadows during post-production than it is to reduce blowout.

how to shoot in harsh light
how to shoot in harsh light

“Fixed ND filters are a little less versatile, as they only reduce light by a set amount, but if you’re dealing with consistent levels of sun then they’re a great solution for keeping your exposure even and soft.”

HARNESS THE POWER OF LENS FILTERS

Although plenty of photographers will make endless noise about how you shouldn’t shoot in harsh sunlight, there’s a simple solution to making the experience into an opportunity rather than a disadvantage: be prepared.

Having the right lens filter in your kit can save you on even the brightest of days. Incorporating ND filters for midday sun shoots is particularly useful as they reduce light intake. That means you’ll be able to widen your aperture, which will let you play with depth of field to figure out how to make your image sharper and obscure a cluttered background. They also allow for a slower shutter speed so that you can experiment with motion blur effects.

Of course, ND filters aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. If you’re going to be in different light conditions, a variable ND filter can be altered quickly to suit changing levels of light and shade. Fixed ND filters are a little less versatile, as they only reduce light by a set amount, but if you’re dealing with consistent levels of sun then they’re a great solution for keeping your exposure even and soft.

When the sun is high and casting strong shadows, CPL filters can also come in handy to cut out reflected or diffused light for more contrast, improved saturation and a better balance between highlights and shadows. This will make your photos more vivid without that unfortunate over-processed look that can result from too much digital editing.

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Eleanor Scott

Eleanor Scott is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor. With over five years of experience she has written for publications like the Guardian US and Neighbourhood Paper, and her work has always reflected her passion for art, design, photography, and culture. Previously the assistant editor of Australia's most widely read sustainable architecture magazine, if she wasn’t a writer she’d probably have become a designer – or indulged her love of surfing and become a permanent beach bum.